Letter from my future self

Someday, you’ll look back at this period in your life and you’ll laugh. I know you, girl.

Really? You’ll say to yourself. Was it really so hard to accept that this was a journey I couldn’t take all by myself?

You’ll laugh when you look back because right now, you’re in this awkward phase where you don’t know what to do. One moment, you’re up; the next, you’re a mess of tears. You don’t want to burden others, and yet you can’t make it through the day without borrowing the strength that’s offered.

This is where you are right now. You’re not superhuman and you shouldn’t aspire to be. Living is hard enough. Putting one foot in front of the other is tough. It’s not your fault if you take people at their word when they say you can lean on them. Don’t be scared to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to reach out.

I know you want off of this rollercoaster. The thing is, it doesn’t stop on command. It’s gotta roll until it’s done rolling.

It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to be a mess. It’s okay because you won’t be like this forever. This mess, it’s gonna take a while. Maybe months, maybe a year, maybe two years. Who knows. The important thing is to remember to be kind to yourself.

I’m giving you a hug, girl. A super big hug because you need it.

There’s still today and there’s still tomorrow and there are still all the tomorrows yet to come. You don’t have to smile all the time. Tears are a good.

Our life was not a bed of roses

My friend tells me that it takes time. First, you cry everyday, then every other day…

I remember a dialogue from somewhere where a character says: How can I share my heart with you when you refuse to show me your tears?

In the years of our marriage, the only time I saw my husband cry was on the night after he came to pick me up from the Clarion West writing workshop. I later found out that he was crying because he was afraid that I would leave him. He was so frightened by my love for Nalo Hopkinson, that he decided to ignore all wisdom, hop on a plane and come to Seattle when I had already told him that I was coming home.

Of course, I love Nalo. Who doesn’t?

Why in the world do you think I would leave you when we have children together? I asked him.

The next day, he bought me a pair of butterfly shaped earrings as an apology. I loved the earrings, but that wasn’t the reason why I forgave him.

For many Filipinas, the vow of marriage is sacrosanct. No matter how difficult it becomes, no matter what trials take place, once given, that vow holds until something happens to make the breaking of that vow inevitable. Sometimes, it is violence. Sometimes, it is betrayal. But almost always, it is death that breaks the vow.

My husband died and suddenly the world has become this strange place. The order of things and the shape of my life have all become more complicated.

Seventeen years ago, I had to learn to forge a new path in this strange land. Seventeen years later, I am once again having to learn how to create a new path. The physical landscape remains unchanged, but the inner landscape is no longer familiar.

Five years ago, my mother-in-law died. Three years later, my father-in-law passed away. Eighteen days ago, my husband died.

It’s not rare, the undertaker said. For us to hear of partners following each other into death so very closely. But for a child to follow their parents so very soon. . .

I know what she wants to say, it is as seldom an occurrence as my husband’s childhood trombosis.

As I write to my friend, I wonder how I did not see the onset of my husband’s heart failure. Three of his major arteries were clogged–this means that heart attack was just waiting to happen. I think of broken hearts and grief and I think of how my husband left me and my children on the day his mother died. Instead of coming home to us, he chose to remain behind and weep with his father.

When he came home, he did not cry. He did not show me his grief. He did not share with me his pain. He locked himself away behind a wall I could not breach.

I ask my friend, how it is possible to share a life with someone and to never have shared their grief.

I loved my husband and I wanted to be the one who he could lean on. I wanted him to be the one I could lean on as well. But for all that I loved him and for all that he loved me, I never knew if he was ever lonely or sad–if the heart he carried inside him was already broken by the early loss of his mother and by the eventual loss of his father.

Aliette reminds me that my husband fell into the dangerzone category. When many men are prone to heart attack and women are prone to cancer.

Beyond all logic, I wonder if I could have done something to prevent it. I am left with my hands full of questions.

Eighteen days have passed and already, I am tired of weeping. I am tired of feeling out of sorts. Of not being able to sleep. Of breaking down at unconvenient moments.

Mom, my eldest son says. It’s okay to be sad, but please think about how embarassed I will be if you break into tears in a fitting room of all places.

And just like that, my heart lightens. I have my children still.

How long does it take?

We’re sitting in a restaurant in Amsterdam when grief becomes an almost tangible thing.

Can I ask you a personal question, I ask one of the guys.

Sure, he says. It depends on how personal that question is.

Just a while ago, you said it’s been four years since. . .

Four years ago, tomorrow, he says before I get to asking.

And just like that, I find myself fighting tears, struggling to find the center of control even as I lose it.

It’s okay, Mom, my youngest son says. He pats my back and whispers something about sadness and how it’s okay to cry.

Do you want a hug? One of the girls asks.

No, I say. I’m okay.

What I really mean to say is: if you hug me, I might break down completely in public and do more than just let the waterworks go.

I am thankful that she doesn’t get up, thankful that the people at our table, do not do the thing that will make me lose it completely. Instead, they let me weep. They allow me the time to swallow my grief.

How long does it take before you burst into tears at random moments? I ask.

It still happens, the one I was talking to replies. It happens in the most random places, like when I’m in the supermarket.

There is no timeline for grief. I know this. There is no quick cure, no easy panacea. I am thankful for the gentleness that embraces me. For how my friends let me find control without fuss and without comment. They let me weep. They let me find my quiet and when I’m ready, they agree with me when I say: I think this is an ice-cream moment.

The macha ice is not too sweet. It tastes just right.

In the land of the living

To be amazed, to be captivated, to be moved.

Today’s workshop at Eschacon reminded me of the joy I feel when I see writers embracing their art with passion.

When I was in New York, Janis Ian talked about the obstacles that keep us from practicing our art. She also spoke of art as living–of how our lives as artists and our art practice are closely connected.

To be heartened, to be reminded, to be woken up to life, to realize that time has not stopped but is steadily moving forward. Life beckons, art calls, I can no longer live in a state of limbo–denying pain, denying agony, denying the discomfort of learning to breathe within this new skin that is my life.

It hurts to live, I said to Aliette.

Give it time, Aliette replied.

There is no hiding from pain. There is no way to bandage the wound.

In the past week, I leaned so hard on the shoulder a friend offered me, and selfishly clung to the idea that by filling up the hours with something, I would be able to move past this grief.

Pain can make us selfish–can make us forget that friendship is a two way street. Not simply taking, but also giving. It means seeing that person for who they are and caring about the things they care about too.

I am better than that. As I talked about writing from the body, about tapping into that deep well from which our stories are born, I understood how failing to acknowledge my weakness, my pain, my selfishness, my grief, was hurtful to those around me–was hurtful to my art; was hurtful to my life; was hurtful to those I cared for.

Regardless of what is offered, no matter how broad those shoulders are, it’s not right to ask a friend to carry my burden.

I must learn to accept the absence. I must learn to acknowledge that it may take time before I cease to be messed up. But I know that there are things in this world that cannot shake me. I have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. I left a loved one there. Now, I must venture forward. I have no doubt I will spend many more tears. But my shoulders are broad enough and my spirit is strong. I am here. I stand in the land of the living.

To remember joy

Meeting up with friends and writers at Eschacon has done me good. I left the house for the first time and went and met people and was able to make it through without turning into a watering pot. For this, I am grateful to dear friends who sustain me and remind me that I am alive and that there is joy in living.

My youngest son tells me of a film they watched at school.

Mees Kees lost his father, my youngest son says. And his mother crawled into bed and couldn’t find joy in anything anymore.

My youngest son is completely out of sorts. He complains of pain. He says he is ill. He worries that his presence at school will make other children sad.

My heart aches for the child who wants his father–who cannot put into words the pain of that absence.

I am still here, I say to my son. I am not that mother.

Remembrance isn’t easy and I recognize how finding and creating moments of joy are a necessity if I am to survive. I think of the work that is at hand–of the books I want to write and the stories I want to tell. I think of friendships made, of bonds forged and of the promise of a brighter tomorrow.

Life must continue. The work must go on. There is still love in the world and hope. I keep my eyes on the goal I set before me and remind myself that this season of mourning will also pass.

I understand how it is possible to die of a broken heart, but I also know that love heals what is broken. I have been given a gift of strength, strong hands that lift me up and remind me that life is worth living and joy can be found with a little bit more effort.

I will not squander the gifts I have been given.  Like all good travelers, I will allow my path to be lighted by the memory of joy.

Eschacon

20151016eschaconintro

Eschacon starts today and I will be there together with awesome writers Zen Cho, Marieke Nijkamp, Corinne Duyvis, Bill Campbell and Aliette de Bodard.

Work and life go on. I’m very honored to join these writers in discussions. To be able to share what knowledge I have gained is a joy.

All he wanted

I had grown so used to returning from trips to find the house in a state of chaos–dishes piled up in the kitchen, toys scattered about the living room…that sort of thing. On the flight back home from New York, I reminded myself that no matter what state the house was in when I returned, the kids had been cared for. It wasn’t that my husband didn’t want to keep house, he probably just didn’t mind the mess as long as the children were happy.

In a rare instance, I arrived at Schiphol to find husband and kids waiting for me in arrivals–most times, I would journey home by myself or would find myself sitting in Starbucks waiting for them to arrive.

I hugged my kids, embraced their father, and indulged in a little PDA.

My youngest son bubbled with excitement and begged for us to stop by a cake shop with pretty little petit fours on display.

Oh, why not? I thought.

They looked perfect for celebrating our reunion.

My sons took turns with my bag, our conversation was lighthearted and happy. They’d been to the town fair while I was gone. They had seen a movie. Youngest son told me he didn’t spend a single cent of the pocket money I gave him before I went to New York.

Back home, when I saw the kitchen window in the same state it had been when I left for New York. I was prepared to open the door to chaos. Except, I didn’t.

If you’re like me, there’s nothing more amazing than coming home to a house that’s spic and span. The toys had been kept away, the coffee table cleared. There were no dirty dishes on the table, no cups and saucers stocked up in the sink.

We worked so hard, my youngest son says.

And look outside, my eldest son prompts.

My beautiful new grass had been trimmed to the proper length.

See, my husband said. You can come and you can go wherever you want and do what you need to do for your art. You can be at ease. I will be here to take care of things.

In the week that followed, we had long conversations about art and art practice. I reminded him of his own art–the photography that he let lie, the writing he no longer excercised, his love of flight, and I told him that life was too short for us to be concerned only about practicalities.

I want us to change, I said. Life is too short not to pursue your passion.

I wanted the same freedom for him that he had given me.

As if they could sense the change, our children blossomed with joyfulness. We laughed a lot, we teased each other. My youngest son studied songs during the day that he sang as a welcome when his father came home. We talked about the future, what we would do, where we would go, how we would make it possible for us to travel more, to see the world, to explore and grow our various creative passions.

In New York, I had said to Janis, that I felt as if I was on the brink of change. I didn’t know what kind of change, but I knew it was coming.

I touch the rings that hang together on a chain around my neck and think of all the things I will miss.

I think of how he eased the stress of packing by making sure I had my chargers and adaptors and multi-plugs. Of how he would tick off a checklist of things I needed to take with me–my laptop, my phone, a camera. My passport, my tickets, my credit card, my toothbrush.

I think of the years–of how he gave me the freedom to venture out into the world and discover and become everything that I could be.

Did I love him enough? Did I make him happy? Did his heart rejoice when he came home from work to find me?

He loved you so much, a dear friend tells me. He was proud of you. He was happy.

We hug each other and hold each other close, my children and I.

We’ll make it, I tell them. We have each other. Your father would want you to have good lives. He worked hard. He loved us. He wanted us to be happy.

1 a.m. thoughts

It’s one in the morning when the doorbell pulls me from my sleep. Our backyard is dark. Everywhere upstairs is dark. I wonder if the doorbell was a dream or if someone is even now, breaking into the house–although why they would want to is quite beyond me.

Finally, I gather up my courage, get out of bed and walk to the landing. Downstairs is bright with light. My eldest son is still up–playing a game. It’s too cold to go downstairs so I decide to send him a whatsapp instead.

My son, I write. It’s past time to go to bed. Put away the playstation, back away from the tv, lock the doors and go to bed.

My smartass eldest son apps me back: W8. I need to finish one more thing, then I’m done.

I try to find a comfy spot and go back to sleep, but I can’t.

The bulbs in our rooms need to be changed. We need to think about putting lights in our backyard. Why didn’t I take something practical when I was in college? Something to do with electrics would have been handy right now.  Of course, there is always the internet.

Once we were four

Loss is still too sharp, too fresh for me to write about remembrance. All through the day, we kept the candle lit. Because his presence is still here with us.

Yesterday, while waiting for the train, my youngest son said: “We used to be four waiting on this platform. Now, we are only three.”

Our favorite shops, the streets we walked, the museums we visited, the places we ate at–Once we were four. Now, we are three.

I watched my eldest son wrestle with a technical problem. What’s an HD cable again? The little things we take for granted take on gigantic proportions.

Who will build my legos with me? My youngest son asks.

Let’s go traveling, my eldest son says. He taps the floor with his foot restlessly. I understand the hidden message in his words.

If it were possible to leave this dream, if we could wake up in another place, in another time, would we find the one who has left us behind?

I am filled with an urge to bundle up my children and take them with me everywhere.

Instead, I remind them to go to bed early. I remind them there are classes in the morning. That each day is a fulfillment of the promises they made at their father’s deathbed.

You must be happy, I tell them. You must become the best you can be. This is what your father would want.

We hold each other when we cry. We hug each other and say: It’s okay to be sad. Our tears are like tiny lights that guide the footsteps of the dear departed.

We are surrounded by love. We are surrounded by light. We lighted the candle this morning, a reminder that these dark days will also pass. Time will come when our smiles and our laughter will no longer carry the echo of our grief.

Dia de los muertos

IMG_2538

Mijn Nederlander

Nederland

was koud

maar vol magie.

Op’t eerste gezicht

was ik

verliefd.

Lege

velden ontroerden

mij. Ik dacht,

Hier

zal ik

altijd blijven wonen.

Eerste impressies vervagen.

We vergeten.

Eerste

passie

wordt gewoon.

Steeds moet ik

onthouden

waarom ik

jou had gekozen.

van alle mensen

ter wereld

vond

ik

jou het

allerliefst, mijn nederlander.

*text from the announcement of our bereavement. My first and only poem written in Dutch using the hay(na)ku form. Today, we lighted a candle and said “See you later”. The departed do not leave us. They remain with us, in our hearts and in our memories. (The English of this text can be found in The Hay(na)ku Anthology, Vol. 2, edited by Jean Vengua and Mark Young. The Dutch version is better.)